Exotica: Sex and race in face-to-face fundraising

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Cover Photo by Drop the Label Movement on Unsplash.

“But really, where are you from?” – that dreaded question I often received when meeting donors in my first fundraising job. I had begun in the role feeling like I had finally found my path, like I could do anything.

I lost that confidence quickly when I learned that many of my donor meetings would start with this inquiry or versions of it, like “have you lived in Canada all your life?” or “where is your home?”. “Toronto” would never suffice. Sooner or later I would give in and tell a story, expecting my counterpart to be satisfied, allowing us to move on. I waited for my chance to ask about their passions, their connections to our cause–like a good fundraiser should.

Instead, my responses almost always led to a larger conversation about the donor’s trips to Asia, with more questions about my origins, which languages I speak, and even more whys and hows and whens. I often left confused, wondering where I went wrong and how I could have changed the narrative. Over time, I got better at redirecting these comments and questions, but they remained ever-present.

I soon learned that interactions like this would be just a part of the picture. They would become coloured by the universal and often unspoken language of sex.

I’ve met several donors who have sexualized or romanticized my experience with them. One who only took after-hours meetings with me, as though they were dates. Another who sent me emails praising my beauty, and asking for personal meet ups and favours unrelated to my job. Another who repeatedly called me, asking if I was married and what religion and ethnicity I held.

My worry about these moments today is not that I sometimes experience them, but that they are plentiful. A rite of passage for many female or racialized fundraisers. So many of us have anecdotes and stories–one in four according to the research. Yet we remain quiet; we think they are too small or that it’s all in our head. We don’t want to seem like complainers.

In the age of #MeToo, our sector is leveling up to speak more about unwanted attention and sexual harassment, as we have witnessed so recently at AFP Congress 2018. Female fundraisers often bear the brunt of these interactions; the power dynamic between donor and fundraiser looming over our heads. When you are trying to make goal, the question of how many unwanted flirtations you are willing to endure is a moving target.

It’s not my place to prescribe what is the best way to react in these situations–there are too many contextual factors at play; your sense of safety and willingness to deal with confrontation among them.

However, I do call upon my fellow fundraisers to bring these conversations into the limelight, without fear of reprisal. We must share our experiences with one another, to help each other understand and respond. Team leaders need to remind staff that it is safe to disclose such interactions. Because sometimes we need to give voice to what is inside to realize it’s not just in our heads.

This article has been co-published with Hilborn Charity eNews.